Counting Blessings and Adversity Scores

After a quick morning run, I’m cleaned up and wearing pink khakis and a white sleeveless htop. It’s spring here in Jersey’s suburbs and it’s fabulous.

Work went well this week. Two articles approved and started. I had an A+ interview yesterday that will made for a great lede in one of the articles. An article from this winter is finally going to pub next week. I’ve put some serious thought into the book project for the summer. (There’s no point writing education articles over the summer, because nobody wants to read about schools on the beach vacation.)

With some solid work under my belt, I’m taking the day off without guilt. I’ll catch the bus into the city to meet a friend from London, who is in town. She picked out a Korean place near Hudson Yards. Then I’ll kill a couple of hours. Writing in the New York Public Library? At the Met? Around 4:30, I’ll take the subway down to Wall Street. Jonah and Ian will take the train into the city and we’ll all meet up outside Steve’s office. We’ll find some place to get beers and snacks along the side of the Hudson and then take the Ferry across the river.

If I had to construct my own adversity score, it would be very low today. I’m pretty lucky, and I know it. I mean we’ve had our issues. I can’t possible quantify the impact that autism had on all of our lives. But then again, we’re lucky. Lots of people have it MUCH worse. Twenty years ago, we were under the poverty line, in (student loan) debt, and without job prospects. But, we were lucky enough that it was grad school poverty, and we were able to dig our way out of the mess.

I suppose that it’s a worth-while exercise to take a look at our lives and make columns of the privileges and disadvantages. I’m not sure how to make a science of those charts and then use them as a basis for college admission. But the thought process is still important for us as individuals. It’s the old “counting your blessings” notion. And looking around my house where there’s a pale and stinky college kid sleeping off the drama of finals week and a calendar of activities for my family, I’ve got it good.

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Conference Culture

Last Sunday, I took a train down to Baltimore for a writer conference. I was already super sick with a head cold, but I thought that with a solid night of sedation with NyQuil, I would be functional for the first panel on Monday morning. I ordered soup for room service that night and downloaded the HBO app on my iPad, so I could watch Game of Thrones in bed.

Soup and drugs weren’t enough. I was pretty much sick the whole week and in danger of public fainting. Luckily, I was staying the same hotel as the conference, so I would take frequent naps in between conferencing. I’m sure I infected half of the writerly community in the country. Oh, well.

This conference was perfectly lovely. Nice people. Mostly women. Lots of POC. It was very relaxed. It was for that niche area of writing that I do, so it was very small.

I’ve been going to conferences since my first job in the late 1980s, when I was a computer book editor at Simon and Schuster. My boss used to put me and the other editorial assistant — a va-va-voom blond with a trust fund — on display at our booth at trade shows to lure the big named computer geeks into writing books for us. We all got drunk at the blackjack table in Vegas and were complete idiots.

Later, I went to a couple decades of academic conferences. Back in the early nineties, the pol sci conferences were a hundred percent old white dudes in tweed jackets, a handful of the up-coming young white dudes in khaki’s talking about regression charts, and me who showed up wearing ripped jeans and combat boots. The next time, I dressed better, but I was always an outsider at those conferences.

When I started leaving academia, I went to some writer and blogging conferences. It was a huge shock, after all the years of stuffy academic conferences. At my first blogging conference, there was a booth where you could take a selfie with Pioneer Woman in front of a butter display. Down the aisle, the Trojan booth caused a stampede when it handed out free dildos and lube.

I’ve always wanted to write an article called, “A Dozen Lanyards,” where I would attend and write about twelve of the wackiest conferences in the country. I mean all conferences are weird to a certain extent. There’s the Queen Bees who are happy to be sitting at the popular table and the insider/niche/nobody-cares-outside-that-conference-room jargon and gossip. There’s the stale air and insulation of the environment. The bad food and the crappy book bags. The bad social skills and gaffs. The billions of dollars generated for the hotel industry.

But, right now, I’m just happy to be home.

Pie-in-the-Sky Proposals for College

Today, the buzz among the education folks that I follow on twitter is Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for student debt forgiveness. From the Daily Beast:

According to a Medium post detailing the policy, the debt cancellation would also apply for every person with a household income between $100,000 and $250,000, with the cancellation amount declining a dollar for every three dollars in income above $100,000, so that a person earning $130,000 would have $40,000 in cancellation. It would not cancel debts for people earning more than $250,000.

The immediate reply was from Phillip Klein at the Washington Examiner, who said that this plan was a cash handout to millennials and wouldn’t help Gen Xers who have already paid off that burden. His article then led to more angry tweets.

Whenever I interview a college student or a recent grad, the number one thing that always comes up is the cost of college and the noose of student loan debt. It is the rare family that has enough saved to choose the college of the choice for their kids without the concern about price.

I’ve talked with recent grads with over $100K in student loans. I’ve talked with others who worked three jobs to pay for school. I know people who will never, ever own a home, because they took out too many loans in grad school for a PhD program.

I talked with a student a few weeks ago (for an article that hasn’t been published yet), who had no clue that her family couldn’t afford a four-year college until she got her acceptance letter. Nobody is really sure how much money they’ll receive from a college until that final letter arrives.

This young woman’s family couldn’t contribute anything towards her college education, while colleges expected that she could find $50K per year. She could get about $7K in federal loans, but the rest would come from horrible private loans. But since her parents wouldn’t co-sign for the private loans, the point was moot. She went to a community college for two years before transferring to a local four-year school.

But she was exceptional kid. Most students like her wouldn’t have made it.

Making college affordable must be a big part of any 2020 Democratic platform. Student loan reforms are only one part of the problem and do nothing to stop that process that creates them. There has to be more money for lower-middle class families, easier transfer process between community colleges and four year schools, more social supports on the college campus, more inclusion for people with different learning styles, better pay for the majority of professors who don’t have tenure jobs, and great support for various career goals.

Workaholics

It’s Sunday.

I’ve already edited Essay #1 and gone to church. The Broadway play that I saw last week has me thinking about an essay that I want to write about journalism. Do here or do it elsewhere? Mmmmm. Thinking, thinking. I have to plan the chore chart for the week, but still must print out the weekly after school calendar for the fridge. Essay #2 is done and needs to shopped around to editors. I checked in on my mom who has a sinus infection. Ian needs to be walked around outside and needs his Kumon worksheets checked. Must call Jonah to see if he’s working or hungover. Weekend cleaning has to happen. I have a name of a housecleaner, but haven’t had enough time to interview and hire someone, so our bathrooms are seriously toxic.

It sounds like a lot, but it’s just life. Much of it shouldn’t really be categorized as work, like the kid and parent and house stuff. Even the writing stuff isn’t like a traditional job, because I love it and I’m not getting paid much.  I could quit and get a proper job that has regular on and off times and pays proper money, but I keep going because this lifestyle is working for me and my family at the moment.

I think about writing and ideas all day, every day. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about I could fix the eighth paragraph in a project.  If the document is on google docs, sometimes I will do the edits in the middle of the night on the iPad that is always on my night table. Once, when I logged into make edits during one of my bouts with insomnia and compulsive editing, I found my editor there looking at my document. Together, we edited an article at 2am. I was in bed the whole time.

Of course, I’m not working every single moment. Being a freelancer means that I can go to the gym for an hour and half whenever I like. I can take breaks from writing to play really dumb video games. I’m also doing laundry, driving Ian places, food shopping, making dinner, cleaning up after breakfast. Some days, I get so overwhelmed that I have to just read a romance novel for an afternoon. All that is work, but it’s not a job-work.

And then there’s social media. Pushing articles through twitter is just a part of the job of being a writer these days.

Ann Helen Peterson had a viral article in BuzzFeed a couple of weeks ago about how millennials became the burnout generation. Her article spawned a whole slew of copycat articles and more think pieces. Here’s one in the NYT.

Peterson writes,

Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.

Read the whole article. It’s a fun read.

But I don’t think this is just a millennial thing. I don’t even think it’s a modern writer thing.  Overworking is a way of life in certain industries in certain parts of the country.

My husband is in the investment banking industry, and he’s probably border line burnt out. With his 90 minute commute, he’s gone from the house for about 12 hours a day. He’s dealing with work e-mails on the weekend. It’s always on his mind. My brother the journalist, my brother in law the architect, my sister in law the teacher, my cousin the lawyer — everyone is working much crazier hours than their parents and everyone is tired. Those with kids are putting in much longer hours parenting than their parents ever did.

Now, some of this is by choice. There are certainly jobs that pay very well that have much more normal hours. I could get a job as a medical technician with a two year college degree and make a bazillion times more than I do now.  College administrators never look like they’re plagued with editing insomnia. We choose the burnout jobs for a variety of reason — prestige, excitement, big money, whatever.

The problem is when there are no alternatives. If people choose a crazy way of life, then that’s fine. But if crazy jobs are the only meal on the menu, then that’s not cool. Not everybody can take my hypothetical sane jobs in college administration or in a hospital. Are there enough options out there for people who want a steady salary with regular hours? I’m not sure.

The real problem with workaholism isn’t just that we’re too tired to do the more mundane chores on our lists. Rather, it’s that we don’t have enough time to live. We don’t have enough time to spend with our loved ones and make huge meals and to hike around a forest crunching ice, because breaking ice is super fun (that’s what Steve and Ian are doing right now). We don’ t have time to experiment with genealogy websites like I did yesterday and found that I’m related to half of Iowa and Bari, Italy. We don’t have the brain space to make new friends at the gym or read silly books. We live in our heads too much and not enough with our bodies.

So, on that note, I’m walking away from the computer for a couple of hours.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Divorced

In the 80s, there was a show called “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Hosted by the toad-like Robin Leach, viewers got an inside look at movie stars and athletes. The rich people showed off their mansions and fancy cars, portraying lives filled with ease and buttery leather seat covers. He often ended the show dancing a yacht with a glass of bubbly and wishing viewers “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”

Today, we don’t need televisions shows to get a glimpse at extreme wealth. The rich post pictures of themselves on private jets and in Paris apartments on Instagram. And we have divorce proceedings to give us exact figures about how much money it takes to maintain those their frizz-free hair and to mind their children.

We’ll soon have the download on the Bezos who are getting divorced. And there are similarly rich couples, like Mugrabi’s, who aren’t necessarily household names, but are making headlines for their divorce proceedings.

$800 bottles of wine, multiple homes filled with Warhols and Koons’s, vacations to St. Bart’s was just an average day in the Mugrabi’s home.

Ms. Mugrabi’s expensive tastes have emerged as a central issue in the divorce. She scoffed at tabloid reports that she is scraping by on $25,000 a month in support payments. The actual amount, she said, is $200,000 a month, though that is less than the $3 million a year that she was accustomed to spending, on things like flowers ($400 a week) and household staff ($450,000 a year).

She went to the salon daily to have her hair perfectly molded and upgraded her wardrobe weekly with the latest haute couture.

The tricky part about this divorce is that much of the assets are on canvases and crafted with oil paints, so it’s hard to put a dollar amount on their actual wealth. Also, there is a question of how much she contributed to the wealth of their art business. And how much does a person, even a super rich person, need for basic maintenance.  All this is being hammered away in the courts right now.

Reading articles like this one in the New York Times, does not fill me with envy. The Mugrabi’s don’t seem to have the easy, happy lifestyle that Leach portrayed in the 1980s. I can’t imagine a worse hell than having to go to the hair salon every day to have my curly hair yanked straight. Managing a staff to keep multiple homes spotless and to mind entitled, neglected children sounds stressful. Surrounded by beautiful paintings that are simply assets, rather than objects of wonder, is shallow. And there’s apparently a danger of finding your husband passed out on top of a naked woman, after a blow-out party in one of your mansions. I have no interest in that world.

We currently have a president who was the king of the Stacy Leach world in the 1980s. Nobody wants a part of his gold covered world. His model wife looks unhappy and mean. Instead, people are rallying around a skinny girl representing a district in the Bronx, who knows how to use a pressure cooker and shops at TJ Maxx.

There’s two kinds of populism. There’s the kind that elected the rich guy, and there’s the kind that elected the poor girl. It will be interesting to see which one wins out.

Dreary January

January always sucks here in the Northeast. It’s grey and cold. We’ve all had the same virus for the past three weeks, trading germs back and forth. I need to give the entire house a Clorox bath to get rid of these lingering evil bugs. Faded Christmas trees lay sad and lonely waiting for pick up by the garbage truck.

A story that I did in December was just published. I posted it here. Happy to talk about it in the comment section. I’m working on something totally different right now. It’s an upbeat story about a school in the South Bronx for emotionally disturbed children. (Yes, it’s a happy story.) I’m also editing a document right now for a long term project. So, there’s a lot of work to do.

I was at that South Bronx school earlier this week and had a great time, except for the horrible drive through the Bronx. With streets full of pot holes, sudden turns, unmarked roads, and drivers who don’t obey normal traffic rules, I was having anxiety attacks as I navigated my way there. But I did it. Yay me.

Jonah’s home still, which is awesome. Sniffling like the rest of us, he’s been looking at the career development website for school and trying to figure out what he’s going to do after graduation. What a bucket of stress!

Other kids in town are using their winter break to do informational interviews with alumna from their schools at various companies around New York City. I’m just hearing about this from other parents. Neither Jonah nor myself got the memo that this is what kids do during winter break now, until it was too late. So, he’s surfing websites about careers, rather than sitting in an office with a suit. Sigh. Parent fail.

There is a RIDICULOUS level on stress on kids about jobs. Here’s an article in Vox describing it. And this stress isn’t totally crazy. Millennials are burning out in their jobs. College graduates aren’t finding work.

I’m moving my family to a bunker in Vermont where we’ll make artisanal goat cheese.

When College Isn’t Enough

college-campus-Harvard.jpgWith a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Rutgers University, New Jersey’s flagship public college, 22-year-old Rachel Van Dyks expected to have a good job by now. A professional job with a proper salary and benefits would enable her to move out of her grandfather’s house, where she lives with her parents and her brother. Instead, the 2017 graduate works 46 hours per week at two jobs — scooping maple walnut ice cream at the local ice cream parlor and taking orders at a high-end steakhouse — while paying for an associate’s degree in cardiovascular sonography at a for-profit technical school.

Van Dyks is not alone, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. A majority of college graduates require additional education in order to qualify for a good-paying job, Carnevale said — though many might not find that out until after commencement exercises are over. While colleges are expanding their career development offices and providing students with opportunities for internships, few students take advantage of those resources. For those young graduates, the realities of the job market come as a surprise.

More here.